More than a century ago, Sidney Lanier’s poem “The Marshes of Glynn” spoke to the awesome mystique and natural beauty of the expansive salt marshes of Glynn County, Ga. Today we have another advocate of these marvelous habitats in Charles Seabrook. Although his book is prose, Seabrook writes like a poet in “The World of the Salt Marsh: Appreciating and Protecting the Tidal Marshes of the Southeastern Atlantic Coast” (2012; University of Georgia Press).
The geographic span for this book is on one of the most productive ecosystems in the world, the coastal Atlantic salt marshes between two well-known sites – Cape Hatteras, N.C., and Cape Canaveral, Fla. The reader is along for the ride in this celebration of one of the most magnificent natural habitats in the world. Seabrook explores the lifestyle of many of the nearly endless array of marine and brackish-water creatures that inhabit the expansive Spartina grasslands and tidal creeks. His enthusiasm extends from microscopic plants and animals such as bacteria and algae, to fiddler crabs, grass shrimp, and oysters, to diamondback terrapins and dolphins. He frames much of his superb writing around solid facts taken from ecological studies that have documented the fundamental facts about salt marshes and the plants and animals that live in or visit them.
Among the fascinating ecological facts is that an acre of salt marsh is more than twice as productive as an acre of “the most fertile farm.” A healthy salt marsh also serves as a natural filter and purifier of water (twice a day, as the tides move in and out). Likewise, the marshes bear the initial brunt of tropical storms by diminishing the high winds and preventing erosion. During fair weather and foul, the Spartina marshes and smaller tidal creeks provide refuge for countless organisms, including many of commercial importance, such as shrimp crabs and smaller fish.
Seabrook’s book is written from the perspective of someone who deeply appreciates the natural habitat with which he is clearly so familiar. Part of the charm of the book is the author’s presentation of some of the people, such as crabbers, oystermen and basket makers whose livelihoods depend upon a healthy salt marsh. The chapter titled “An Endangered Culture” discusses the Gullah-Geechee people of South Carolina (Gullah) and Georgia (Geechee). The descendants of slaves freed after the Civil War, these isolated societies on the sea islands “kept intact their colorful Creole language, folklore, cuisine, arts, rituals, and traditions.” Seabrook’s captivating descriptions of how these placid Gullah-Geechee cultures were overtaken and overrun by profligate commercial development beginning in the 1960s is a part of the salt marsh ecosystem with which most people, including ecologists, are not familiar.
He also addresses the conservation status of many of the species, some of important commercial value, that create the remarkable biodiversity of this extraordinary environment. His concern for the impacts that coastal development and commercial interests have had and are continuing to have on the natural salt marsh systems is well placed. He does not hold back on the negative effects of human inroads and on the environmental damages that have occurred throughout the southeastern Atlantic Coast. He notes that despite the extensive work of ecologists to understand the salt marsh and the efforts of poets to sing its praises, “there are those who destroy the marsh.” He mentions some of the assaults being made on the natural inhabitants and how we all stand to lose if the ecosystem begins to unravel beyond our abilities to restore it. He offers hope for the environmental health and continuation of the salt marsh but cautions that “the battles continue; we must be vigilant.”
Sidney Lanier’s poem ends with these lines: “And I would I could know what swimmeth below when the tide comes in / On the length and the breadth of the marvellous marshes of Glynn.” Charles Seabrook provides a glimpse of some of the creatures that swimmeth below and a look at the modern day perils they face.
Whit Gibbons is an ecologist and environmental educator with the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory.